For three many years, Dan Smith has been making a solemn promise to New Yorkers. He has posted his flier — “Dan Smith Will Teach You Guitar” — hundreds of instances within the metropolis’s bodegas, espresso retailers, pizza parlors, delis and laundromats. Parodied by Jon Stewart and the guitar god John Mayer, Mr. Smith has reached native legend standing alongside the likes of Cellino & Barnes, Dr. Zizmor and Keano.
There have been not less than 60 variations of the signal, and most have included a photograph of a seemingly ageless, sinewy and smiley Mr. Smith posing along with his instrument. But recognizing one within the city wild might quickly turn into a rarity, as a result of New York’s go-to guitar instructor is doing much less of his classic model of promotion and embracing a extra 2022 method.
Three months in the past, Mr. Smith, 51, began a YouTube channel, the place he has posted brief tutorial movies to assist aspiring guitarists navigate “Should I Stay or Should I Go” (by the Clash), “I’ll Be Your Man” (the Black Keys) and extra songs. Others have had success as YouTube guitar instructors: “Marty Music” has 3.3 million followers, and “Andy Guitar” has 2.2 million. Mr. Smith, a newcomer to the world of on-line tutorials, had 144 followers as of this week.
While reporting this story, I took my outdated guitar from its case, the place a household of cockroaches had taken up residence a couple of months earlier than, and tried to play together with a few his movies, solely to get pissed off. I shortly gave up, as I had many instances earlier than when attempting to be taught devices.
My can’t-do perspective makes me precisely the sort of particular person Dan Smith doesn’t wish to train. In truth, after I requested him if he would give me classes, he mentioned no. In different phrases, Dan Smith will not train me guitar. At one level, he even threatened to cancel an interview.
After we had re-established the standard journalist-subject relationship, I requested him why he had soured on me. “You didn’t really want to learn how to play guitar,” he mentioned.
“I understand why I’m perceived as just an amazing promoter,” he mentioned. “Of course, that’s how people perceive me, because, in many ways, that’s all they’ve known of me so far.”
To crack Dan Smith the person, I would wish to look previous Dan Smith the marketer.
Mr. Smith, who lives in Manhattan along with his spouse, Melissa, a photographer, costs $150 for a one-hour personal session. He additionally gives group workshops and classes in songwriting and solo efficiency. He mentioned he has supported himself by educating guitar because the mid-Nineteen Nineties.
He began giving classes at age 16 in his hometown, Newton, Mass. Just a few years later, after doing a little experimental theater, busking exterior Le Centre Pompidou in Paris and placing in a while at New York University, he determined to pursue a profession in music and theater. He began educating once more to earn money, and it quickly grew to become a calling.
“I’m trying to help people connect to themselves,” he mentioned.
He has stipulations about whom he’ll train and the way, pedagogical guidelines he mentioned he had provide you with after hundreds of classes.
Students should see him not less than one hour every week, as an indication of their dedication. And they need to not go to him with the concept that his classes are all about studying to select and strum or play solos like a guitar hero.
“Music is a lot more than just putting your fingers on the strings,” he mentioned. “It’s telling a story, it’s creating a mood, it’s evoking an emotion.”
Mr. Smith doesn’t train his buddies. “You need some distance,” he mentioned. “You need some objectivity.”
He doesn’t tackle college students beneath 21. “Everybody pays as they go,” he mentioned, “because I want everybody to think about it every time they have a guitar lesson: ‘I’m paying for this. What am I bringing to the table?’ The person who’s doing it needs to pay for it, because that’s what makes it real for them.”
There are but extra stipulations: Mr. Smith doesn’t provide present certificates; he doesn’t train individuals who have signed up for classes at another person’s behest, like singers or actors whose managers need them to be taught guitar; and he doesn’t take notes for his college students or allow them to take notes.
“It doesn’t work,” he mentioned. “I’ve tested everything that I know for a fact. That’s another thing that separates me from other teachers: I’ve done the research.”
For those that meet the factors, the expertise might be transformative.
“It’s not just about learning an instrument but expanding my feelings about myself, about what I’m about,” mentioned David A. Paterson, the previous governor of New York, who has been finding out with Mr. Smith since 2020.
Mr. Paterson, who takes a two-hour lesson every week, mentioned that he and Mr. Smith often spend half a session simply speaking. “I think that’s his meditation technique,” he mentioned. “That’s how he gets you in the mood to play.”
Mr. Paterson, who’s legally blind, added that he appreciated his instructor’s endurance and an method that goes past approach. “He’s a psychologist,” he mentioned. “I’ve always been someone who thinks that, to make up the difference, that I have to hurry.”
“When you do a song,” Mr. Paterson continued, “it’s almost like you’re shoveling snow: You just drive through. You have a lot of energy and you work hard, but it’s not an intellectual pursuit; it’s getting the feel of things. The great musicians call it ‘Make room for Jesus.’ In other words, you play — and then you just stop. That little space is as much a part as the music. I’m still struggling with just stopping.”
Mr. Smith mentioned that the time spent in dialog serves a goal: “If a student arrives and they are tense or distracted — everybody needs time to, in my opinion, clear the runway for themselves before they can really make music.”
In 2020, six months into his research with Mr. Smith, Mr. Paterson and his instructor took the stage of Bar Nine in Manhattan, the place they carried out “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye.
Mr. Smith generally performs solo at Paddy Reilly’s Music Bar and different Manhattan golf equipment. His authentic songs embody the city-centric “Sixth Avenue” and “New York Forever.” During our time collectively, he talked about that he was about to carry out in entrance of a big viewers at an out of doors present in Battery Park. In the times main as much as the gig, he texted me to ensure I’d be there. Mr. Smith’s spouse echoed the gravity of the second, telling me how excited they had been for the event.
It was billed as “a talent show” that includes town’s “most notable and iconic characters.” The lineup was put collectively by Nicholas Heller, a filmmaker and social media character generally known as New York Nico. It was timed to the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Mr. Heller’s documentary movie brief, “Out of Order.”
“There’s a BuzzFeed list of people who are super-famous in New York, and Dan Smith is on it,” Mr. Heller mentioned. “To me, he’s more important than a worldwide celebrity.”
With his trusty Gibson Hummingbird guitar, Mr. Smith took the stage at nightfall. He seemed critical, earnest. It was clear that, in contrast to some others on the invoice, he didn’t view his efficiency as a stunt, however as an opportunity to point out New York what he’s fabricated from.
He began taking part in “New York Forever,” which he had written within the early a part of the pandemic as a tribute to town’s resilience. In the center of the track, one other New York character appeared onstage, on stilts. It was the one-name road performer Bobby, who repeatedly walks town towering over crowds.
As Bobby loomed over the stage, Mr. Smith appeared unfazed. He has, in spite of everything, had many years of observe in educating others about what it means to take your time and seize the second. And when his track was over, the group cheered not for the person from the flier however for the performer who was attempting to understand a New York dream like the remainder of us.